The Complete Guide To Improving Your Heart Health

Some Shocking Statistics on Heart Health

Back in the 1920s heart attacks and strokes were very rare. Since then, Public Health England has found that 78% of people have a heart age higher than their actual age. With 34% showing a heart age more than 5 years above their real age, and 14% showing a heart age of 10 years higher than their real age!

According to the British Heart Foundation, 7 million people live with heart and circulatory diseases in the UK, causing 1 death every 3 minutes! So we have to start asking what has happened over the last century to see this huge increase in incidences of heart problems.

Could the increasing prevalence of processed and microwaved food, with a lack of the nutrients we need, have anything to do with it? Firstly, let’s take a look at what is going on in the body, in the heart and blood pressure problems.

Causes of heart problems

We want our blood to be 90% water, flowing easily through our body. If our blood is anything less than 90% water, it becomes sludgy, like a swamp, and cannot flow as easily. This impairs our ability to get nutrients and oxygen around the body and eliminate waste from our cells.

A lack of adequate intake of water is a major factor in both high blood pressure and low blood pressure. This can be detrimental if someone is experiencing symptoms of dizziness or faintness with it. As without enough pressure to pump the blood around the body efficiently, oxygen and nutrients cannot get to where they need to be. Additionally, metabolic and other waste cannot be removed from the cells as efficiently.

Cholesterol – bad guy or good guy?

If you’ve read my blog on hydration, you’ll know that we lose 4 pints of water every day. If we are not replacing this water with clean, hydrating fluids, studies suggest that our body will recognise there is a drought going on.

The body then cleverly resorts to ‘drought management’ by making more cholesterol to coat our cells to stop them losing more water. This can lead to an electrolyte imbalance in the cells, as potassium and magnesium cannot get into the cells as easily and sodium and calcium cannot get out as easily. Our cells become sodiumised and calcified, which results in our blood vessels becoming more rigid. Furthermore, the lack of magnesium affects the pumping mechanism of the heart.

Cholesterol is also cleverly produced by the body and used, along with calcium, to form plaque. This patches up any damage to the lining of the arterial walls, also known as free radical damage or oxidative stress. This is very clever, as it means that blood can still flow through those arteries.

However, if the root causes of why cholesterol is being produced in such quantities is not addressed (i.e. the water shortage in the body and the free radical damage caused by our daily lives), then the build up of cholesterol can narrow the arteries.

The level of cholesterol in the body is measured by LDL, HDL and VLDL. These are simply carriers of cholesterol, which all have important roles in the body. LDL and VLDL carry the cholesterol from the liver to wherever it’s needed in the body. HDL collects up all the excess and takes it back to the liver where it’s broken down.

Common medications for heart health and their health implications

Statins are used to lower cholesterol, but in simply prescribing this, we haven’t addressed the route cause. It is a bit like blaming the firemen for the fire because they’ve come to put the fire out and been found at the scene.

We need cholesterol for a number of processes in the body, such as making our steroid hormones and making our cell membranes. So, you can begin to see why reducing production of cholesterol, without addressing the route cause, can have implications on hormonal and cell health.

In addition, research has indicated that statin medications could have a major impact on energy production in the body, as they deplete Co-enzyme Q10, which is essential for this process. Red rice yeast is a natural supplement that has been shown to lower cholesterol (Heber et al., 1999).

The same is also true of blood pressure medications. They lower the amount of blood volume by increasing urination, causing further water loss. It fixes the problem of the blood pressure, but doesn’t address the root causes, one of which is a shortage of adequate hydration in the body.

So, whilst I am not for a second suggesting that anyone stop taking their medications. I am suggesting you do your research around side effects and make informed choices with your prescribing physician. And, most importantly, address or, even better, prevent the root causes with hydration and good nutrition.

Good nutrition for heart health

Magnesium

Magnesium’s role in heart health

Magnesium is involved in hundreds of enzymatic processes throughout the body. It is an essential mineral for the heart to be able to relax as well as contract. It is also implicated in migraines, cramps, bladder issues, acid reflux, basically in any function of the body that involves contraction and relaxation. Magnesium is essential for making our tissue hormones, called “prostaglandins”, which are involved in the repair of arteries.

Another role of magnesium in heart health is to break down homocysteine which is a by-product of protein break down. Homocysteine levels in blood plasma have been found to be a far better indicator of heart health than cholesterol is. Blood plasma levels above 9 are considered a high risk of cardiovascular disease and ideally we want to see levels between 5 and 7. Some GPs will request this in a blood draw if you ask them, but if your GP won’t, the test can be obtained from York Test and done privately.

Sources of magnesium

It is hard to get an adequate intake of magnesium through our food without supplementation. This is because our soils are very much depleted in magnesium, due to modern agricultural methods.

Food sources of magnesium include apricots, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, sea vegetables / seaweeds (from a clean unpolluted source such as Atlantic seaweeds), legumes and avocados. Magnesium citrate is a bioavailable form of magnesium, meaning it is better absorbed. However, it can have a slight laxative effect if taken in high doses.

Magnesium glycinate is another bioavailable source. A great source of magnesium is transdermal magnesium, i.e liquid magnesium that can be absorbed through the skin. Magnesium malate tends to be used in those with energy issues and magnesium oxide is poorly absorbed, hence its use in a lot of natural laxative supplements.

It is best to seek advice when deciding on the right magnesium supplement for you and the right dosage. This is due to the fact that magnesium can be very cleansing to the cells. Additionally, if your detoxification pathways in the body aren’t working as efficiently as they should e.g. you’re not having a bowel movement twice a day or your stools are pale and floating. Then whatever waste is being eliminated from the cells will not be able to exit the body effectively.

Detoxification in the body requires the bowels, the small intestine, the liver, the kidneys, bile flow, sufficient blood flow, lymph drainage and the release of waste from the cells all to be working beautifully. Unfortunately this is often not the case, as so many people nowadays don’t even have healthy bowel movements.

This is where naturopathic techniques come into their own, but they should always be used as part of a holistic treatment programme to prevent them from causing problems. Contact me to find out more or come on my Health on A Plate course to learn about practical application and much more!

Best time to take magnesium

There seems to be some debate over the best time to take magnesium supplements. Taking magnesium before bed can be very relaxing and aid a restful night’s sleep. However, it is best absorbed in an acidic environment so taking after a meal can also be a good choice.

Phytates and oxalic acid found in certain foods (nuts, seeds, legumes, etc) can interfere with its absorption. So ensuring you don’t eat excessive amounts of oxalate foods and you soak & rinse phytate containing foods before consumption can alleviate this. High fat diets and a lack of vitamin D can also reduce the absorption of magnesium.

Zinc

Zinc’s role in heart health

Just like magnesium, zinc is also involved in making prostaglandins, which can repair damage to the lining of the arterial wall. In addition, zinc is also involved in metabolising homocysteine.

Sources of zinc

Zinc comes predominantly from animal sources. Vegans can easily get zinc from soaked and rinsed nuts and seeds (especially sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds & pine nuts), sea vegetables and soaked and rinsed legumes.

Zinc citrate is a good form of supplemental zinc, but should be taken under advice, as zinc and copper work in balance with one another. A good nutritional therapist should be able to assess whether you need a zinc supplement alone, or one balanced with copper.

Methyl-movers

Other movers and shakers in the break down of homocysteine, aka “methyl movers” are B2, B6, B12, B9, TMG. Food sources of these B vitamins include dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, eggs, meat, organic tempeh and tofu, mushrooms, avocados, fish and wholegrains. Food sources of TMG include broccoli, quinoa, beets, spinach and sweet potato. In addition, there are many supplemental forms of methyl movers, usually found in methylation complexes.

Vitamin C

The role of vitamin C in heart health

Vitamin C is incredibly important in repairing the arteries and we want to be looking at levels of around 500mg a day. It is water soluble, so what your body doesn’t need it urinates out.

Vitamin C, whilst an antioxidant in its own right, is also important in the production of glutathione. Glutathione is our master-antioxidant, which can assist in clearing up free radicals within the body that may damage the lining of the arterial wall.

Sources of Vitamin C

Whilst we can get vitamin C from our fruit and vegetables, they are often picked unripe. This means they don’t contain adequate levels of vitamin C anymore. However, we can still work on increasing our levels by eating dietary sources such as avocado, watermelon, strawberries, potatoes with their skins, asparagus, broccoli, tomatoes, grapefruit and oranges.

Supplemental vitamin C is most readily absorbed in its liposomal form. Those that struggle to digest fat then Ester C could also be a good choice. Buffered vitamin C is the most gentle on the stomach for those of you with any gastrointestinal issues.

Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids

Omega 3’s role in heart health

Another essential nutrient in heart health is omega 3 essential fatty acids. These “good” oils stop the platelets in our blood sticking together. But our Western diets are filled with damaged fats, that prevent those “good” oils from doing their job. They do this by attaching to the cell receptors and blocking the uptake of the fats we actually need for good cell health.

Sources of “bad” fats

Bad fats include trans-fats, margarines, heated oils (with the exception of coconut oil, ghee and organic butter) oils that come in plastic or transparent bottles that let light in and oils that are not cold-pressed, organic and extra virgin. Common sources of foods cooked in bad fats include crisps, chips, deep-fried produce and take-away meals. So it’s important we consider fats in our food choices too.

Food sources of omega 3 fatty acids.

Ground chia seeds are an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids and can be added to smoothies or sprinkled on salads. Remember that heating fats that are unstable such as omega 3 fats will turn them rancid and produce free radicals. Other great food sources of omega 3 fatty acids include wild Alaskan salmon (or other wild unfarmed oily fish), walnuts and pumpkin seeds.

Chlorella and spirulina are also good food sources, but very cleansing. They should be used in small amounts with caution, until someone is having 2 great bowel movements a day. A great bowel movement is a sausage that sinks, doesn’t leave marks on the toilet bowl and is easy to pass. Have a look at the Bristol Stool Chart for more information.

Supplementing with omega 3s

A couple of teaspoons of lecithin a day can be a great way to prepare the body for supplementation with omega 3. Many people find it difficult to break down fats, as their livers are working so hard trying to deal with the toxins we take in through our everyday lives. Signs of this include nausea or fatigue after eating fat and floating or pale coloured stools.

Supplemental sources include Krill oil, which is much more readily absorbed as it has been broken down by the fish already. An source which is suitable for vegans is cold-pressed organic flaxseed oil. However, converting vegan food sources of Omega 3s, to be able to provide our body with the fats it needs to maintain healthy cells, is less efficient than from oily fish. It can be further affected by genetics, stress levels and food choices. As such, a good solution for vegans is to supplement with microalgae as well as taking flax oil.

Vitamin D3

Vitamin D3 helps to regulate blood pressure, whilst vitamin K2 helps prevent calcification of arteries. It does this by enabling calcium to be deposited in bone and not the arteries.

It is difficult to get adequate amounts of Vitamin D from food, sources include oily fish, meat and eggs. Vitamin D is also synthesised by the body using – guess what? – cholesterol! Cholesterol is used to make a steroid hormone which is secreted into the skin’s surface and, when the sun’s ultraviolet rays touch bare skin, conversion to vitamin D3 begins to take place. But of course living in the UK we aren’t always blessed with copious amounts of sun. Optimal vitamin D levels need to be around 125nmol, which can easily be established through a blood draw at the GPs. Ask to see your actual test results with the figures.

Vitamin K2

Vitamin K2 is produced by certain microbes in our large intestine. Which in itself can be problematic, as many of us are deficient in certain types of bowel flora. Read the blog about bowel flora to find out more about why eating yoghurt or taking probiotics don’t cut it in restoring healthy populations of bowel flora in the large intestines.

Vitamin K2 producing microbes include Bacteroides fragilis, Eubacterium, Propionibacterium and Arachnia Escheria coli. If you have ever done a stool test that looks at your bacterial populations, you should be able to see whether you have healthy amounts of these bowel flora. To find out more about stool testing, have a look at my lab testing page or contact me. Because it’s synthesised by bacteria, it can also be found in fermented foods such as Natto and Sauerkraut.

Certain supplement companies sell Vitamin D3 with K2, so this can be a good choice for those of you with sub-optimal levels of vitamin D and poor populations of vitamin K2 producing bowel flora.

Co-enzyme Q10

CoQ10 helps maintain the elasticity of blood vessels and acts as an antioxidant. This helps protect against free radical damage to the arteries by inhibiting lipid peroxidation in LDL and cell membranes and it is essential for ATP energy production.

Our energy “currency” if you like, ATP, plays a vital role in the function of our bodies. Our heart also requires a high rate of ATP to work efficiently. However, research suggests it is significantly depleted by the use of Statins. Whilst red meat, organ meat, fish and most fruit and vegetables contain it in small amounts, it is made mostly in the body from a number of vitamins and trace minerals.

It can be taken in liposomal supplement form but, as with anything, it can have contraindications especially if you are on certain medications. As always it’s best to seek advice from a nutritional therapist as opposed to reading blogs and self-medicating.

Phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are compounds found in plant-based foods that have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is important in preventing platelet aggregation and studies have shown it can also lower blood pressure and prevent LDL oxidation. It can be found in food sources such as red grapes, raw cacao powder, strawberries, blueberries, jackfruit skin, bilberries, redcurrants, cranberries and mulberries. It is also available in supplement form.

Lycopene

Lycopene helps prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol and can be found in sources such as tomatoes, preferably cooked to increase their bioavailability. If someone is avoiding nightshades because of conditions such as arthritis, then other rich sources include pink grapefruit and watermelon.

Carotenoids

Carotenoids is a phytonutrient that has high antioxidant potential which, as we’ve seen, can help repair free radical damage to arteries. They also help prevent the formation of plaque in the arteries and are especially good at quenching lipid peroxyl radicals. This helps to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, a high risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

The phytonutrient works synergistically with vitamins A and E, so ensure you have an adequate intake of all of these. Food sources include carrots, kale, apricots, mangos and sweet potatoes. Lightly steaming them will increase the bioavailability (absorption).

Flavonoids and Bioflavonoids

Bioflavonoids have also been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease in studies. However, it’s unclear whether that is due to the bioflavonoid activity or the fact that the foods consumed also contained carotenoids. So eating food sources rich in both would be well advised. These include broccoli, kale and celery.

Quercetin has been shown in studies to help prevent lipid peroxidation, particularly of LDL, and is also a very powerful antioxidant. Quercetin is abundant in onions, leafy vegetables, peppers, broccoli and apples. It can also be taken in supplemental form for those of you who have IBS and struggle with high FODMAP foods such as onions and garlic.

Polyphenols found in green tea also have a potent antioxidant effect. Matcha is a particularly potent form and comes in powder form or you can buy matcha teabags from reputable companies who know about herbs such as Pukka teas.

Isoflavones

Isoflavones, a subclass of bioflavonoids, have also been shown to reduce LDL oxidation and are also effective carcinogen blockers. This would be useful for smokers, who are at a high risk of cardiovascular disease. They are also thought to reduce serum cholesterol.

The best source would be organic fermented soya foods, such as miso and tempeh. There may be contraindications for women who are pregnant, however, due to their estrogenic effects. Alfalfa sprouts are another good source, also providing a rich source of Vitamin C. There is some evidence that red clover isoflavones may make arteries more flexible, but this tends to be sold as a supplement rather than a food.

Glutathione

Glutathione is a major antioxidant in the body. So whilst not specifically implicated for cardiovascular disease, again would be useful for clearing up free radical damage. A good source is avocados, which would also be useful for their essential fatty acid content for someone at high risk of cardiovascular disease.

As I mentioned earlier, which glutathione can be taken as a supplement, it is best to have an adequate intake of the methyl movers that enable it to be made from metabolising the protein we eat.

Thiols

Garlic is a thiol, an organic sulphur compound. The alliin and allicin contained within it are thought to lower cholesterols, lipids and blood pressure, vascular resistance and blood coagulation, which would decrease the risk of blood clots. It is also thought to support heart function. Garlic is best added therapeutically to food later in cooking, ensuring that a lid is kept on, as the allicin produced on chopping or crushing garlic evaporates in cooking. Allicin is produced by cooking garlic whole in this way or pickling it. It is therefore best to vary cooking methods in order to get the most therapeutic value from garlic.

The role of lifestyle factors in heart health

Exercise

Exercise is critical in order to increase circulation and exercise that heart muscle. This does not have to be strenuous, it has to be appropriate to whatever you can do and your physician can advise.

Rebounders are a great and gentle way to exercise. Just doing 5 mins rebounding 3 times a day will have a beneficial effect. Whatever you choose, whether it be a 20 minute walk in a park, yoga or cycling, choose things you love so that you can sustain it every single day.

Fresh air and daylight

20 minutes a day in full spectrum daylight, in fresh air without any glasses or contact lenses if possible, will be hugely beneficial both for oxygen production and for sleep, during which the body does its most repair work.

Emotional health and stress reduction

We can’t talk about heart health without talking about emotional health. The heart is all about love and connection with both ourselves and others, so whatever we can do to work on this can only help.

Practices such as gratitude journaling, mindfulness, chanting, meditation, apps such as Headspace switch you from a state of stress into a restful healing state in which the body can repair.

Whilst this may all sound very ethereal, there is actual science behind this. Oxytocin, that feel good chemical we produce when we get a hug or do something nice for ourselves or others, aids the production of nitric oxide, which is crucial for arterial flexibility. So working on increasing joy for both yourself and others will feed your heart!

To conclude, research indicates that the most important factors in improving your heart health are hydration, nutrition and avoiding as much toxic exposure as possible. Other important factors are getting enough exercise, daylight and improving your emotional health. I hope this blog has been useful! If you have any questions I will respond to comments left on this blog.

References:

British Heart Foundation (2018). Heart Statistics. https://www.bhf.org.uk/what-we-do/our-research/heart-statistics

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DiNicolantonio et al (2005). The health benefits of vitamin K.

Gammone et al (2015). Carotenoids: potential allies of cardiovascular health?

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Mozos et al (2018). Lycopene and Vascular Health.

Peterson et al, (2012). Do Flavonoids Reduce Cardiovascular Disease Incidence or Mortality in US and European Populations?

Public Health England (2018). Heart Age Test gives early warning of heart attack and stroke.

Rahman & Lowe (2006). Garlic and Cardiovascular Disease: A Critical Review.

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